“There comes a point in everyone’s lives where we start to recognize that we are making choices, that we are determining who we are by the actions that we make,” poet, educator and activist Amy King stated in a 2015 speech at SUNY Nassau Community College, where she is a professor of English and creative writing. “What we do says a lot about who we are, not just what we say.”
I’m stunned by that moment with your father and your struggle to understand what people around you were saying. I’m also struck by the notion of the poet as a young girl not trusting her own ears, as you say. How did you learn to make out the words all around you–and to trust yourself?
I don’t think I ever have really. I just embrace the temporality of life a bit more than usual and go with what comes across. It’s why I am not embarrassed to ask someone to pass the “lotion” for the salad or to verb nouns for decades now. I think subconsciously I suppressed my accent as a response to my father, but that shock taught me that not only is my mother unreliable, but so is the alternative, my father. I had already been disabused of the notion of unconditional love; I was holding out hope in him for at least a lasting, warm embrace. I’ve grown since that bottoming out: DNA is not all, and one can find family—and become family—elsewhere.
This is all linked to the notion that people speak to signal group intimacy; language is shaped by mutual alliances and allegiances. When family rejects your language needs, believe the message it sends and seek anew.
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.